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Why Your Hamstrings are Tight

Many people live their lives with tight hamstrings. These muscles are ripe for imbalances for a few reasons. One reason is the hamstrings are behind our legs and positioned “out of sight, out of mind”. People tend to have a better mind-muscle connection with muscles they can see. Are you aware of how your bicep responds to rotations in the wrist? Now think about how rotating your ankle or hip joints affects your hamstring strength. The hamstrings probably are slightly more “foreign” to you. 

Another reason hamstrings are prone to imbalances is that people often neglect their hamstrings when designing an exercise routine. Leg days are commonly push-focused or glute-focused. Even when hamstrings are included in routines, these exercises may be the first on the chopping block when an athlete is low on time or feels tired on their leg day. 

Causes of Tight Hamstrings

  1. Anterior Pelvic Tilt

The hips get pulled in 4 main directions. Up from the abs and back and down from quads and hamstrings. APT is caused by a combination of tight quads and hip flexors with underdeveloped abs. In this case, stretching your hamstrings will only exacerbate your tension. 

These imbalances can come from sports like running or tennis. These sports are quad-dominant and don’t develop the core very well. These imbalances may also be caused by prolonged sitting. During sitting, the hip flexors and core muscles are shortened. After sitting at work 8 hours a day, driving, sitting to eat, and perhaps sleeping curled in a ball, the muscles adapt to this position stay shortened. When a person with this movement pattern stands up, their hip flexors arent long enough to fully extend the hip. The fron of the pelvis gets pulled down, and the person now has an APT postural lesion. 

How to Tell if APT is causing your tight hamstrings:
You can perform a simple test: the Thomas Test. Test for tight hip flexors by lying on a table with your knees off the end. Bend one knee and hug it at your chest. If the extended leg rises off the table, you have APT and it may be causing tight hamstrings. 

Use caution when digging into hamstring stretches, as they may exacerbate your tightness.

  1. Neural Entrapment

Here we need to talk about the “S” word… sciatica. The sciatic nerve runs just underneath the hamstring muscles, so sciatic health can be affected by your hamstrings. If the hamstrings impede the neurodynamics of the sciatic nerve, you may find it limiting your “hamstring” mobility. Neurodynamics basically just describes the way that nerves move through your body. If a nerve’s movement is impinged, the nerve may get tight during a stretch before the muscles around it are stretched. 

Your hamstring tightness may be sciatica-related if you feel hamstring stretches in your calf or foot. To limit the amount of neural tension during hamstring stretches, try doing the same stretches with ankle dorsiflexion, spinal extension, hip abduction, or hip external rotation. If you try these and your mobility is improved, great. This likely indicates that your sciatic nerve is tight and your hamstrings are fine. 

  1. Injury

This cause goes without saying. If you strained your hamstring muscle during a fall or by trying to do the splits at a dance party, you may feel pain in the muscle for months. Fortunately, as long as you stay gentle with the muscle and don’t overdo it again, it will eventually heal. 

In the case of a lumbar disc herniation, the musculature around the herniation will tense up to protect the injury. This injury response is called protective tension. Herniation symptoms may be gentle and go undiagnosed for a long time. You may suffer from a herniation if you have pain after sitting, getting up from bed, or shooting pains in your lower back. 

  1. Weakened stabilizing muscles. 

Your hip joint is complicated because it has two impressive characteristics. Not only is the hip one of the strongest joints in the body, but it has range of motion in all 3 anatomical planes. Your knee is also extremely strong but mainly moves in 1 direction, so is anatomically more simple. 

Many stabilizing muscles surround your hip, you may have heard of some of these stabilizers, like the piriformis or the glute minimus. Inactivity or neglecting movement in certain directions will cause these muscles to weaken. Weakened stabilizer muscles may cause the hamstrings to engage to stabilize the hip joint themselves. This added tension may lead to discomfort and pain. 

How to fix the problem:

The best way to fix your tight hamstrings depends on what is causing the tension. Anterior pelvic tilt is a very common cause, so let's unpack this one. The goal here is to restore pelvic neutrality. This can be achieved by developing your core muscles and lengthening your hip flexors. Neither of these happens overnight, but you will likely notice improvements after only a couple of weeks of consistent training. 

To develop your core muscles, performing exercises that don’t recruit the hip flexors is crucial. Examples of appropriate core exercises are push-throughs, downward wood chops, and planks. To lengthen your hip flexors, you have 2 options. Foam rolling and stretching. Ideally, you will be able to use both methods. Foam rolling after exercise is a great way to mitigate tension. About 10 minutes of stretching 4-5 days per week will be plenty to notice improvements.

"To keep the body in good health is a duty... otherwise we shall not be able to keep our mind strong and clear." - Buddha


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